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On the 'Morality' of Cinematic Action-Movie Massacres

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There is a moment at around the 20-minute mark of Olympus Has Fallen (review) where a giant airplane piloted by evil North Koreans shoots down an American fighter jet which then crashes not in the water or in an empty parking lot, but smack-dab into a suburban home.  Considering the time of day the scene takes place, there's a pretty good chance whomever lived there was probably home at the time and was instantly burned to a crisp.  That moment would have jolting enough, but the attack sequence that kicks off the plot goes on for a good 20 minutes, offering countless innocent bystanders being bloodily gunned down in the streets, along with others being crushed by falling monuments and blown up by various explosions set off during the White House siege.  This isn't even counting the bazillion Secret Service agents who are slaughtered in the attack sequence, including a moment where enemy soldiers walk around the White House plugging wounded agents in the head (onscreen) for the crime of not being quite dead yet. Half of me was rather impressed by the rather horrifying onscreen body count.  Half of me was debating whether to be offended or bothered by it.

As an action sequence and an orgy of violence, Olympus Has Fallen is pretty high up there in sheer carnage and no-punches-pulled bloodshed. It's the highlight of the film and is arguably worth seeing for the collage of escalating chaos alone.  But for a film that was supposed to be a 'turn your brain off at the door' rollicking good time, this was some rather disturbing violence on display. Point being, does violence of this nature and/or magnitude belong in a movie that is supposed to be 'harmless popcorn entertainment'?  And, without going into the would-be morality (that's a whole different can of worms), can a certain level or type of violence actually make a popcorn action film less enjoyable and/or null the would-be happy ending?

Obviously this is a huge grey area.  What constitutes lightweight action fare versus more serious-minded entertainment?  I might argue that The Peacemaker is an ahead-of-its-time action thriller that seriously deals with the concept of international blow-back and thus justifies its nuked Russia.  You might say it's a silly George Clooney/Nicole Kidman action picture and nothing more.  You may say Rambo is a brainless splatter-fest while I would argue it's Stallone's Unforgiven.  Obviously your critical opinion of the film affects your thoughts on its high level of gruesome and gut-punching violence.   So for the sake of this argument, let's presume that the films were dealing with are "officially" pure mass-market entertainments.

Would Die Hard have been less enjoyable had Hans Gruber actually succeeded in blowing up that roof with all of the hostages still standing on it?  Is part of the reason that Raiders of the Lost Ark remains a timeless good-time action classic is that pretty much every single person who dies during its 111-minute running time is a 'bad guy'?  Is it cheating to have Mission: Impossible II end up on a completely happy note while basically forgetting that Dougray Scott crashed a passenger jet into a mountain as phase one of his otherwise-thwarted evil plan?  One of the things I've always liked about Katheryn Bigelow's action pictures (up to and including Zero Dark Thirty) is that they refuse to ignore the tragedy of their 'stock action-movie violence.'  Keanu Reeves may eventually catch up to Patrick Swayze in Point Break, but once his surfer-bank robbers have shed innocent blood, any hope for a truly happy ending is out the window.

Any number of action films (Dirty Harry, Lethal Weapon, The Terminator) have the decency to either keep the collateral damage to a minimum or at least end on a less-than-completely happy ending, even if its just a token acknowledgment of what everyone went through.  A random example, but Martin Campbell does it right in Vertical Limit, ending on a makeshift memorial for the lost souls who trekked up a mountain and never came back.  If you want to craft an insanely violent action picture, you ought to at least have the decency to not shrug off the bloodshed during the film's would-be happy ending, as if the lives lost don't mattered because the bad guy died or someone important got rescued.  You want to open Drop Zone with a mid-air prison break on a commercial jet where passengers are riddled with bullets and sucked out of the plane?  Fine, but don't end your movie on a punchline which completely ignores the rather large numbers of people that Wesley Snipes absolutely failed to save.

It's not a deal-breaker and it's not a zero sum game.  I still enjoy Mission: Impossible 2 and Drop Zone has more wrong with it than just its cruel streak. Wanted was a terrible movie even before the "hero" indirectly killed dozens (hundreds?) of innocent bystanders by causing a train crash.  There are any number of good-to-great action pictures that involve massive and/or arbitrary casualties that mostly shrug it off at the end (Star Wars, nearly every Renny Harlin film, nearly every James Bond film).  Air Force One tries to have it both ways, acknowledging the carnage in the early portions of the film but basically waving it away at the climax for a super-mega happy ending just because Harrison Ford got out of the plane.  The finale of Speed has Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves making out on a crashed subway train completely oblivious to the bullet-riddled Richard Schiff that is probably right next to them (a completely gratuitous murder in a film that otherwise avoids gratuitous violence), yet it's still one of the best action films of the last 20 years or so.

Olympus Has Fallen briefly acknowledges the horror of its opening siege only to completely forget about it in the latter half of the film, to the point where (slight spoilers) a rather terrible act of violence right at the end is utterly ignored once its established that the president is still alive after all.  It's an admittedly minor nitpick. I hesitate to dig any deeper into the cultural implications of action films that treat mass slaughter as 'no big deal' violence since part of the reason we enjoy action films is to enjoy the violence on display.  But it's something that has occasionally bugged me over the years, as if the filmmakers aren't really paying attention to their own body count when they construct their super-mega-happy ending.

I have no profound conclusions about this.  But I do know that I was bothered by the casual way in which random bystanders were sucked out of an airplane in Drop Zone and now I'm somewhat bothered by the mostly consequence-free carnage in Olympus Has Fallen.  It's an imaginary and subjective line, but arguably there should be some kind of proverbial line in the sand when it comes to casual carnage in 'just for fun' action pictures.  Or maybe I am just a little too empathetic for my own good.  You decide...

Scott Mendelson